A trip to the supermarket is an adventure into a tempting and treacherous jungle. The insatiable hunger for a ready-made breakfast that nourishes our bodies and our social conscience has made our morning bowls of cereal a hiding place for corporate charlatans. A new report, Cereal Crimes (see the below video), by the Cornucopia Institute discloses the toxic truth about “natural” products and unmasks corporate faces like Kellogg’s hiding behind supposedly “family-run” businesses such as Kashi.
When these breakfast barons forage for profit, we eaters are the prey. But what are the laws of this jungle? And how do we avoid being ripped off by products that are hazardous for our health and our environment? Let’s have a look at some of these corporations’ sneaky strategies.
First, there is intentional confusion. With so many different kinds of cereal lining the shelves, figuring out which is the best requires detective work. Many make claims about health, boasting “no trans fats,” “gluten-free,” and “a boost of omega three.” Others play to environmental concerns declaring “earthy harmony,” “nature in balance,” and “sustainable soils.” With the legion of labels, separating wheat from chaff seems impossible, but the report offers one rule of thumb: Don’t confuse organic with “natural.”
Organics, certified and recognizable by the green USDA label, are required by federal law to be produced without toxic inputs and genetically engineered ingredients. “Natural,” on the other hand, is defined by the producers themselves to mislead shoppers and protect shareholders. Cornucopia’s report found that, “When determining their ‘natural’ standards, companies will consider their profitability. Environmental concerns are unlikely to weigh heavily, if at all, in this profitability equation.”
Too bad we’ve been falling for it. The report cites a 2009 poll showing 33 percent of the public trusts the “natural” label while 45 percent trust the organic label.
Video: Cereal Crimes
Generally “natural” is thought to imply the absence of pesticides and genetically engineered organisms, but a closer look at the crunchy goodness inside the boxes reveals the content of both. Tests run by the institute showed as high as 100 percent genetically engineered (GE) contaminated ingredients in popular products like Kashi GoLean, Mother’s Bumpers, Nutritious Living Hi-Lo, and General Mills Kix. Even the brands explicitly claiming to be “non-GMO” failed the test, some of them containing more that 50 percent GE corn. Organic products, such as Nature’s Path certified organic corn flakes, were GMO and GE free when tested.
Moreover, conventional ingredients, which “natural” products contain, have been found to hold traces of pesticides. The USDA found detectable neurotoxins in popular breakfast ingredients like oats, wheat, soybeans, corn, almonds, raisins, blueberries, honey and cranberries. New studies are constantly finding new health risks associated with exposure to pesticides. One such found that exposure during pregnancy increased the risk of a pervasive developmental disorder and delays of mental development at 2 to 3 years of age, while another found postnatal exposure to be associated with behavioral problems, poorer short-term memory and motor skills, and longer reaction times among children. Adding to the picture, a recent study by University of Montreal and Harvard University found association between organophosphate in children and ADHD.
It is time for us to reconsider what we associate with the term “natural.” In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan sends out a warning against health claims on food: “As a general rule it’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in the Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their new found ‘whole-grain goodness’ to the rafters.”
The same applies to “natural.” Labeling broccoli “natural” would offend common sense. This is the irony of marketing: On a spectrum between whole foods and processed products, the loudest “natural” claims sound from the latter end.
So why do we eaters swallow these cereal scams? The report exposes how breakfast barons intentionally blur the line between organic and natural.
The “natural” products are predominantly camouflaged in brown and green boxes, mimicking the colors of nature, creating an association between “natural” and sustainable agriculture. Packaging images such as rolling fields, grazing cows or smiling farmers give us the impression that by throwing these products in our basket we take a stance against industrial agriculture.
And the producers market themselves as family-run, small-scale business. The Kashi Web site reads: “We are a small (after 25 years, still fewer than 70 of us) band of passionate people who believe right down to our bones that everyone has the power to make positive changes in their lives.” Conveniently absent from packages and Web site is the fact that Kellogg, the largest cereal manufacturer in the country, acquired Kashi back in 2000. Kellogg also owns Bear Naked. General Mills, the second largest breakfast company in the country owns Cascadian Farm, and Back to Nature is run by Kraft Foods, a company with almost $50 million revenue in 2010.
Why does it matter? Because these companies exploit consumers’ desire for conscious consumption and make us feed the system we think we are taking a stance against: Industrial agriculture.
But this is only the beginning of the scam.
The report reveals another strategy: Bait-and-switch. Peace Cereal eloquently performed the maneuver. The brand started out organic, but in 2008 switched to cheaper conventional ingredients and adopted the “natural” label, without changing packaging, pricing or barcode. Many shoppers and retailers did not notice that the USDA label quietly disappeared from the bottom right-hand corner.
Similarly a number of brands market their names as organic by loudly promoting the few certified products on the shelf, ignoring the fact that most of their products are mere conventional ones labeled as “natural.” Annie’s Homegrown, for example, was featured in a 12-page advertisement section in the Washington Post, paid for by the Organic Trade Organization and aimed at educating consumers on the benefits of organics. Nowhere did it mention that only one of five cereal products made by Annie’s Homegrown is organic. That takes an investigation of the fine print on the box many of us don’t perform as we race through the aisle in the short minutes we often have to shop.
But if these natural cereals are nothing but cheap conventional ones in fancy dresses, one would at least expect them to be cheaper than organic products. The report, however, shows just the opposite, and suggests that, “some companies are taking advantage of consumer confusion regarding the difference between the meaningless natural label and certified organic claims.”
So next time you find yourself with a box of organic cereal in your right hand, and a box of natural cereal in your left, remember to read the fine print. Don’t be fooled by labels that are meant to sell products, not look after your health or the environment.
Ida Hartmann is a student of anthropology at the University of Copenhagen and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.